Ronald Dworkin is an American legal philosopher, and currently professor of Jurisprudence at University College London and the New York University School of Law. His theory of law as integrity is one of the leading contemporary views of the nature of law. Dworkin is most famous for his critique of Hart's legal positivism; he sets forth the fullest statement of his critique in his book Law's Empire. Dworkin's theory is 'interpretive': the law is whatever follows from a constructive interpretation of the institutional history of the legal system.
"Positivism's most significant critic rejects the theory on every conceivable level. He denies that there can be any general theory of the existence and content of law; he denies that local theories of particular legal systems can identify law without recourse to its merits, and he rejects the whole institutional focus of positivism. A theory of law is for Dworkin a theory of how cases ought to be decided and it begins, not with an account of political organization, but with an abstract ideal regulating the conditions under which governments may use coercive force over their subjects."
Dworkin argues that moral principles that people hold dear are often wrong, even to the extent that certain crimes are acceptable if your principles are skewed enough. In order to discover and apply these principles, courts interpret the legal data (legislation, cases etc) with a view to articulating an interpretation which best explains and justifies past legal practice. All interpretation must follow, Dworkin argues, from the notion of "law as integrity" in order to make sense. Out of the idea that law is 'interpretive' in this way, Dworkin argues that in every situation where people's legal rights are controversial, the best interpretation involves the right answer thesis. Dworkin opposes the notion that judges have such a discretion in difficult cases.
Dworkin's model of legal principles is also connected with Hart's notion of the Rule of Recognition. Dworkin rejects Hart's conception of a master rule in every legal system that identifies valid laws, on the basis that this would entail that the process of identifying law must be uncontroversial, whereas (Dworkin argues) people have legal rights even in cases where the correct legal outcome is open to reasonable dispute. While Dworkin moves away from positivism's separation of law and morality, his concept suggests that the two are related in an epistemic rather than ontological sense as posited by traditional natural law.
One of Dworkin's most interesting and controversial theses states that there is only one right answer for most legal cases. Dworkin uses the metaphor of judge Hercules, an ideal judge, immensely wise and with full knowledge of legal sources. Hercules would also have plenty of time to decide. Acting on the premise that the law is a seamless web, Hercules is required to construct the theory that best fits and justifies the law as a whole (law as integrity) in order to decide any particular case. Hercules, Dworkin argues, would always come to the one right answer.
"Suppose the legislature has passed a statute stipulating that 'sacrilegious contracts shall henceforth be invalid.' The community is divided as to whether a contract signed on Sunday is, for that reason alone, sacrilegious. It is known that very few of the legislators had that question in mind when they voted, and that they are now equally divided on the question of whether it should be so interpreted. Tom and Tim have signed a contract on Sunday, and Tom now sues Tim to enforce the terms of the contract, whose validity Tim contests. Shall we say that the judge must look for the right answer to the question of whether Tom's contract is valid, even though the community is deeply divided about what the right answer is? Or is it more realistic to say that there simply is no right answer to the question?" (Dworkin, 1978)
Dworkin does not deny that competent lawyers often disagree on what is the solution to a given case. On the contrary, he claims that they are disagreeing about the right answer to the case, the answer Hercules would give. Dworkin's critics argue that not only law proper (that is, the legal sources) is full of gaps and inconsistencies, but also that other legal standards (including principles) may be insufficient to solve a hard case. Some of them are incommensurable. In any of these situations, even Hercules would be in a dilemma and none of the possible answers would be the right one.
Dworkin defends his position saying that everyday judges, much like everyday people, find their way and choose between options and values that were supposed to be incommensurable. Dworkin also argues that it is always possible to find out other rules or principles in order to solve the conflict between those we had in mind. The same counter-argument, however, regarding principles and moral standards that are incommensurable, would seem to apply to any further principles or rules we may discover in the process. In other words, the claim that there may always be more principles or rules to be taken into account proves nothing about the nature of those further principles, or about Dworkin's claim that the exercise, in the hands of the omnipotent Judge Hercules, will eventually come to a stop (when we have reached the right answer). In fact, the opposite conclusion could just as well be drawn from Dworkin's claim - that the exercise in question, under the guidance of such an omnipotent figure, would extend into infinity. Thus while a 'right' answer may be available at any given stage, no final right answer would ever be arrived at by Hercules. Or, there is nothing to suggest one way or the other.
Dworkin's metaphor of judge Hercules bears some resemblance to Rawls' veil of ignorance and Habermas' ideal speech situation, in that they all suggest idealised methods of arriving at somehow valid normative propositions. The key difference with respect to the former is that Rawls' veil of ignorance translates almost seamlessly from the purely ideal to the practical. In relation to politics in a democratic society, for example, it is a way of saying that those in power should treat the political opposition consistently with how they would like to be treated when in opposition, because their present position offers no guarantee as to what their position will be in the political landscape of the future (i.e. they will inevitably form the opposition at some point). Dworkin's Judge Hercules, on the other hand, is a purely idealised construct, that is if such a figure existed, he would arrive at a right answer in every moral dilemma.
Dworkin's right answer thesis turns on the success of his attack on the sceptical argument that right answers in legal-moral dilemmas cannot be determined. Dworkin's anti-sceptical argument is essentially that the properties of the sceptic's claim are analogous to those of substantive moral claims, that is, in asserting that the truth or falsity of 'legal-moral' dilemmas cannot be determined, the sceptic makes not a metaphysical claim about the way things are, but a moral claim to the effect that it is, in the face of epistemic uncertainty, unjust to determine legal-moral issues to the detriment of any given individual.
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